Strange New World: No ‘Star Trek’
So they’ve gone and killed “Star Trek.” And it’s about time.
They tried it before, remember. The network flushed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down into the great septic tank of broadcast waste, from which no traveler.... No, wait, let’s get this right: from which rotting ideas and aging actors return with depressing regularity.
It was the fans who saved “Star Trek” from oblivion. They just wouldn’t let go.
This was in the days before VCRs, and way before DVDs. You couldn’t go out and buy the boxed set of all three seasons. When a show was canceled, the only way you could see it again was if some local station picked it up in syndication.
A few stations did just that. And the hungry fans called their friends and they watched it faithfully. They memorized the episodes. I swear I’ve heard of people who quit their jobs and moved just so they could live in a city that had “Star Trek” running every day.
And then the madness really got underway.
They started making costumes and wearing pointy ears. They wrote messages in Klingon, they wrote their own stories about the characters, filling in what was left out -- including, in one truly specialized subgenre, the “Kirk-Spock” stories in which their relationship was not as platonic and emotionless as the TV show depicted it.
Mostly, though, they wrote and wrote and wrote letters. To the networks. To the production company. To the stars and minor characters and guest stars and grips of the series, inviting them to attend conventions and speak about the events on the series as if they had really happened, instead of being filmed on a tatty little set with cheesy special effects.
So out of the ashes the series rose again. Here’s the question: Why?
The original “Star Trek,” created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion.
This was in the days before series characters were allowed to grow and change, before episodic television was allowed to have a through line. So it didn’t matter which episode you might be watching, from which year -- the characters were exactly the same.
As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s -- a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.
Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.
Little of this seeped into the original “Star Trek.” The later spinoffs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry’s rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?
Here’s what I think: Most people weren’t reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren’t reading at all. So when they saw “Star Trek,” primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.
Now we finally have first-rate science fiction film and television that are every bit as good as anything going on in print.
Charlie Kaufman created the two finest science fiction films of all time so far: “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have created “Lost,” the finest television science fiction series of all time ... so far.
Through-line series like Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Alfred Gough’s and Miles Millar’s “Smallville” have raised our expectations of what episodic sci-fi and fantasy ought to be. Whedon’s “Firefly” showed us that even 1930s sci-fi can be well acted and tell a compelling long-term story.
Screen sci-fi has finally caught up with written science fiction. We’re in college now. High school is over. There’s just no need for “Star Trek” anymore.